By Donnelly McCleland

Prominent Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes,  according to her family. Sotoudeh is well known for representing human rights defenders, dissidents and women who protested against the compulsory wearing of a headscarf in Iran. According to IRNA, Iran’s state-owned news service, the human rights lawyer was convicted of “gathering and colluding to commit crimes against national security” and for “insulting the Supreme Leader”. (CNN)

Sotoudeh’s ‘crimes’

On 11 March 2019, Reza Khandan, Sotoudeh’s husband, announced that authorities had formally communicated to her that they had added another 33 years in prison and 148 lashes to Sotoudeh’s existing five-year sentence (Iranian authorities arrested Sotoudeh on 13 June 2018 to serve a five-year sentence issued against her in absentia on 3 September 2016). According to Khandan, based on Iran’s penal code (“only the harshest prison sentence shall be served”), if confirmed, Sotoudeh must serve 12 years in prison.

According to the published verdict, branch 28 of Tehran’s Revolutionary court sentenced Sotoudeh on the charges of: “assembly and collusion to act against national security” (7.5 years in prison); “propaganda against the state” (1.5 years in prison); “membership in illegal group of LEGAM” (Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty) (7.5 years in prison); “encouraging (moral) corruption and prostitution” [referencing opposition to the mandatory hijab – headscarf – law] (12 years in prison); “appearing without a headscarf in public” (74 lashes); “publishing false information to disturb public minds” (3 years in prison and 74 lashes); and “disrupting public order” (2 years in prison).

All the charges represent her peaceful human rights work, including her defence of women protesting against Iran’s forced hijab (veiling) laws.

A life of service and sacrifice

Sotoudeh studied law at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, passing her exam in 1995. She went on to pass the bar after eight years – focussing on human rights cases and specialising in the rights of children. She focused particularly on capital punishment, especially of under-18s – which is still considered to be a problem in Iran. Her interests extended to include the rights of women, of political activists, of journalists and religious minorities.

Apart from running her own law practice, she worked with or helped create a number of NGOs including the Defenders of Human Rights Centre, which was founded by Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace prize-winner, and the Children’s Rights Committee. The human rights centre was shut down by the government in 2008. In 2012, Sotoudeh received the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for her work on high-profile cases, and in September 2018 the Ludovic-Trarieux international human rights prize.

Sotoudeh (55) is married to Reza Khandan and they have two children, a daughter, Mehraveh (18) and son, Nima (11). Sotoudeh has emphasised that Reza is “truly a modern man,” standing beside her and her work during her struggles. In an interview with The Guardian she said that being separated from her children was the hardest thing to bear, but that as young as they were when she was first arrested, they had shown great courage. Sotoudeh was first arrested and imprisoned in 2010 when she served about half of a six-year jail sentence for “spreading propaganda” and “conspiring to harm state security” – charges she denied – before being freed in 2013.

Philip Luther of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Research and Advocacy Director, says of Sotoudeh: “Nasrin Sotoudeh has dedicated her life to defending women’s rights and speaking out against the death penalty – it is utterly outrageous that Iran’s authorities are punishing her for her human rights work.”

Attacking the last line of defence

The news of Sotoudeh’s most recent sentencing came only days after hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi was appointed the new head of the judiciary. The UN investigator on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, raised Sotoudeh’s case at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 11 March, saying that she “was reportedly convicted of charges relating to her work and could face a lengthy prison sentence.” He went on to say: “Worrying patterns of intimidation, arrest, prosecution, and ill-treatment of human rights defenders, lawyers, and labour rights activists signal an increasingly severe state response.”

Rehman was not the only human rights activist to have spoken out in Sotoudeh’s defence.  Amnesty International called for her immediate and unconditional release, condemning the latest case against Sotoudeh as an “outrageous injustice.” According to Amnesty International, Iran conducted its “worst” crackdown in a decade in 2018, arresting over 7,000 dissidents.

Iran Human Rights likewise issued a statement. “Sotoudeh has been sentenced in a Kafkaesque trial severely lacking in international standards of due process,” said executive director Hadi Ghaemi. “The Iranian Judiciary is punishing Sotoudeh for trying to uphold the rule of law and the right to a fair defence in cases involving defendants facing politically motivated charges,” he added. “First they went after the journalists, activists and dissidents. Now they’re going after their only line of defence.”


Proverbs 31: 8-9 says: “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Nasrin Sotoudeh has spent much of her adult life doing just that, speaking up on behalf of those who have been treated unfairly. She again faces the consequences of her commitment to justice. Sotoudeh’s first arrest and imprisonment (2010) was widely condemned in the international community, and within three years she was released, with no explanation given, and could continue her work. Many people hope that international pressure will again play a part in bringing about her release, but there are those who are concerned that state oppression has deepened to such an extent that such a release is now a lot less likely.

Iran is ranked 9th on the Open Doors 2019 World Watch List of the top 50 worst persecutors of Christians. According to Open Doors: “Converts from Islam to Christianity bear the brunt of Christian persecution, especially by the government and, to a lesser extent, by their families and society. The government sees them as an attempt by Western countries to undermine Islam and the Islamic regime of Iran. Leaders of groups of Christian converts have been arrested, prosecuted and have received long prison sentences for “crimes against the national security.”

Sotoudeh’s case also highlights the plight of many Christians who are currently imprisoned in Iran simply for pursuing their faith in Christ – if an internationally acclaimed, award-winning human right’s lawyer can face such a harsh punishment for her peaceful protest, what chance do believers have? Despite such dire consequences, people continue to share their faith, and the Church in Iran continues to grow. The Lord is building His Church, and “the gates of Hell will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18).


  • For the eyes of the leaders in Iran’s justice system to be opened
  • For the release of those fighting for freedom in Iran
  • For boldness and courage for the Iranian Church, including those believers in prison